Slaid Cleaves Seasons His Songs With Love and War

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Slaid Cleaves spins stories with a novelist’s eye (“Rust Belt Fields”) and a poet’s heart (“God’s Own Yodeler”). Accordingly, his earthy narratives resonate deeply with fellow songwriters.

“Slaid’s a craftsman,” says Terri Hendrix, who sings harmony on the new “Texas Love Song.” “He goes about his songs like a woodworker. You get a lot of the man behind the lyrics. He doesn’t have the eyes of a cynic. He has optimism through a realistic gaze and writes with a wise voice.”

Twenty years on, the celebrated songwriter’s new album Still Fighting the War spotlights an artist in peak form.

CMT Edge: Explain how the new album took shape.

Cleaves: After the previous record [2009’s Everything You Love Will Be Taken Away], I’ve spent the past three winters holed up writing songs and just collecting songs while I wasn’t touring. A year ago, I found I had enough to start a recording. I started recording last spring with those songs that had been building up.

You write better in the winter?

I do write better in the winter, I think. Things are quieter, and you’re inside and can be more reflective. I generally have a few benefactors who let me use their guest houses or ranch houses, so I seclude myself for three or four days at a time. I try to do that once or twice a month in the winter.

I’ve settled into a very seasonal pattern where I play a little bit in Texas in spring and fall, but summer is the time to tour and get out of the Texas heat, spend time in Maine, where I grew up and where my family is, and it works out well that way. Tour in the summer months and lay low in the winter months.

Describe your writing process.

I go out with books to read and movies to watch and a laptop with all my writing scraps and tiny ideas I’ve picked up over the years but have not had time to mull over and expand on. You can’t force it. I don’t sit at a blank page and just write something. I do find that if the laptop’s open and ready to go and I’m reading stories and thinking about language and thinking like a writer, eventually I get ideas. Then I’ll obsess on them and write and rewrite.

Tell the story behind writing the new album’s title track.

I started “Still Fighting the War” four years ago, and originally each verse was a separate character. Each verse was about getting swindled. One was about the economy, one was about a returning veteran, one was about a broken-up couple. It was too cumbersome. I started to focus on the soldier.

The crowning piece was when I was talking to my friend and occasional co-writer, Ron Coy, who had a Vietnam vet buddy who passed away recently. He said, “It was like he was still fighting the war all this time.” I thought that was the perfect way to summarize and make the song more elegant.

Did a common lyrical theme emerge in these songs?

Not as much as normal. Normally when I’m writing, after three or four songs, a theme emerges, and I’ll use that to guide the rest of the record. I made a conscious decision about the way albums are becoming less important and people don’t have the attention span to sit down and listen to an album. They just put their iPods on shuffle and listen to one song at a time or download one song at a time. I thought, “The hell with that. I’m just gonna write where the muse takes me, and each song will be its own little thing. I won’t worry about putting them together.”

Did you have any leftovers cut from the sessions?

Yeah, we ended up recording 17 songs, which is way more than an album needs. I knew eventually I’d have to weed out some songs and make an album that’s cohesive in some way — but after the songs had already been written. It was difficult. I had more than the usual number of lighthearted, whimsical songs but not enough to make it a totally fun record. I basically took the 13 best songs. Half have the theme of struggle and perseverance, and half are all over the place, some tongue-in-cheek stuff, musings on mortality, a Texas pride song.

Yeah, tell the story behind that one, “Texas Love Song.”

That’s another I started a long time ago, almost 10 years ago. Originally, the phrase was, “I love you almost as much as I love Texas.” In Texas, that’s about as big a compliment as you can give somebody if you’re a proud Texan.

I did the intellectual exercise to see how many rhymes I could come up with for Texas, but the phrase, “I love you almost as much as I love Texas,” doesn’t roll off the tongue very elegantly, so I gave up on that song for years. Then I realized that if I committed the sin of saying, “I love you even more than I love Texas,” it sings much better.

How does living in Central Texas impact you as a songwriter?

I’ve been here for 21 years and just know so many musicians and industry people, and it’s just such a community. I don’t know if it’s like this anywhere else. It feels really good to be a part of a community, and I remember that even from early on.

In the early ‘90s, I fell in with a group of songwriters who were new in town and doing open mics and supporting each other at low-level gigs in Austin — the Austin Outhouse and the Chicago House and stuff like that. We’d get together and work on songs together and encourage each other and critique each other. That sense of community was hugely important in my development.

You sing about the late Don Walser in “God’s Own Yodeler.” What impact did Don have on you as a singer?

People liked my voice from early on. It’s a little distinctive, a little different, recognizable if not powerful. When I saw Don Walser, I realized how high the bar could be. Don was such a phenomenal singer and did such amazing acrobatic yodeling, but just the purity and sincerity of his voice was incredible.

Whenever I was around Don Walser, watching him at a gig or playing music at his bedside when he was ailing, I was reminded of the immense potential power that music has to affect you, make you laugh or cry or feel love for your fellow man. He embodied the power of music. He had an effect on me musically and spiritually.

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